‘I had no idea this was going to happen.’

Jenny stumbled up and down the hallway, carrying her first born, now 3 months old, in her arms who just.won’t.stop.crying. Nothing seems to work, and it seems to be going on forever. Her husband tries to help out as best he can, but hey, he can’t breast feed. He knows she is exhausted, and is worried about her. Maybe there is something wrong with my son? Maybe I am doing something wrong?

Key points

  • Be ready and plan.
  • Familiarise yourself with the PURPLE characteristics of crying.
  • Learn your baby’s body language.
  • Increase carry, comfort, walk and talk responses.
  • Calm yourself before trying to calm your baby.
  • Never shake or hurt your baby.
  • Seek help from family and friends.

Crying is normal

New parents usually have a pretty good idea that the first few months of parenthood are going to be rough. Sometimes however, the sheer difficulty of dealing with a crying baby takes them by surprise. The best approach to this is to be ready, and to plan.

All babies cry — sometimes a lot. The normal pattern is for crying to start increasing around two weeks of age, peak around two months, and then settle down around three to four months of age, perhaps five. The amount of crying varies from baby to baby, but all babies cry — and not just human babies; in the early months babies of other mammal species cry as well.


This crying used to be called ‘colic’ in those babies that cried more than the average, but this is not a helpful term. The word colic implies that there is something wrong with the baby. This is not usually the case. That said, crying may increase as a consequence of a child being sick or having a medical problem, and if you are concerned that this may be the case it’s quite reasonable to get your child checked by your doctor. If in doubt, check it out.

A more useful term developed by specialists in this area is ‘the period of PURPLE crying’ (www.purplecrying.org). The letters of the word purple stand for characteristics of this period of crying, namely:

  • Peak – your baby may cry more each week, the most at 2 months, then less at 3-5 months
  • Unexpected – crying can come and go and you won’t know why
  • Resists soothing – your baby may not stop crying no matter what you try
  • Pain-like face – a baby may look like they’re in pain, even when they’re not
  • Long-lasting – crying can last as much as five hours a day, or more
  • Evening cluster – your baby may cry more in the late afternoon or evening

With this sort of crying, especially if you are sleep deprived in these early months, you can become frazzled and frustrated. And fair enough too; it’s hard! Being frustrated is ok — it’s what you do when you’re frustrated that matters. There’s a danger of parents and carers ‘losing it’ in this situation. It’s important that we’re aware that this is a possibility, and take measures in advance against losing control. This includes checking that other people who may be supervising your child (such as relatives, friends or paid carers) are also aware of this, and are able to cope and not lose it.

To protect yourself and hence your baby, the ‘purple crying people’ recommend these three action steps:

  • Increase carry, comfort, walk and talk responses – your baby may still continue to cry, but there is a reasonable chance you may be able to soothe them
  • It’s ok to walk away – it’s important to calm yourself before trying to calm your baby.
  • Never shake or hurt your baby – shaking your baby is a critically dangerous thing to do. Because babies have large heads and weak neck muscles — and adults are so much stronger than they are — they can very easily be severely damaged. Shaking your baby can lead to blindness, and brain damage resulting in physical disabilities, developmental disabilities and death.

Body language

To deal with crying and help both you and your baby, it’s useful to learn your baby’s particular body language. Every baby is different. Watch for the signals they give you when they’re tired, hungry, ready for action or upset. Look at their facial expressions and what signals they give you with their hands and limb movements. Some typical body language patterns include:

  • Tired – stiff jerky movements, being quiet or still, blank faced, rubbing eyes, moodiness, droopy eyelids or slow blinking and crying
  • Hungry – open mouth, eager expression and crying
  • Ready for action – wide open eyes, alert expression and kicking legs
  • Upset – jerky movements, turning away and crying

If your baby is upset, ways we can sooth them and make them feel content and protected include gentle stroking and cuddling, providing close contact or skin-to-skin contact, talking to them, singing to them, smiling at them and rocking them. Repetitive rocking movements helps calm an overstimulated baby’s brain.

Remember, having a small baby that cries a lot can be really stressful. If you can, call in favours from family and friends – this is the time to do it, and no, you are not failing if you ask for help. Also, if you are really struggling, seek help from your doctor or early childhood health centre. It is important for both you and your baby.